Precambrian

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Geologic Time (ca. 4500 million years ago - present)
Hadean Archean Proterozoic Phanerozoic
Precambrian (ca. 4500 - 542 million years ago)  
Precambrian
The Precambrian comprises the Hadean, Archaean, and Proterozoic eons.
Ca. 4500 - 542 millions of years ago

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The Precambrian (or Pre-Cambrian) is an interval of geologic time of roughly 4 billion years, beginning with the formation of Earth around 4500 million years ago (mya) and continuing until the abrupt appearance in the fossil record some 542 mya of abundant macroscopic hard-shelled animals. That event marks the beginning of the Cambrian period.

During the vast depths of Precambrian time, the newly-formed planet congealed, cooled, differentiated into solid, liquid, and gaseous parts, and became the site for the origin of microscopic life forms that proliferated and became major participants shaping the planet. Photosynthetic bacteria, in particular, released so much oxygen that it caused the waters' heavy load of dissolved iron to precipitate out as iron oxides (which form today's rich veins of iron ore). As the bacteria continued producing oxygen while levels of iron in the water declined, the oxygen accumulated in the atmosphere, achieving the level needed to support the forms of multicellular life that were developing in the waters—on the foundation of an earlier development from non-nucleated cells (prokaryotes) to nucleated cells (eukaryotes).

The Precambrian is divided, from earliest to most recent, into the Hadean, Archaean (or Archean), and Proterozoic eons. Some scientists recognize only two subdivisions, the Archaean and the Proterozoic eons, beginning the Precambrian from the formation of the earth's crust and the oldest earth rocks 3800-4000 mya. In rock formations dating from the Archaean eon, the first fossil evidence of prokaryotic cells appears about 3500 mya and the first fossil evidence of eukaryotic cells appears about 2700 mya. Red algae, the first known multicelled organism appears about 1200 mya and the earliest known complex multicelled organisms appear in the Ediacaran period, starting at least by 570 mya.

The Cambrian period immediately following is the age when a rapid expansion of animal phyla appears in the fossil record, an event called the Cambrian explosion.

Contents

Overview

Remarkably little is known about the Precambrian, despite the fact that it makes up roughly seven-eighths of the Earth's history. What little is known has been discovered largely in the past four or five decades. The Precambrian fossil record is poor, and what fossils are present (such as those of stromatolites—formed by microbial biofilms whose calcarious slime mixed with sedimentary grains hardens and over time accumulates in layers forming a kind of nodule) are of limited use for biostratigraphic work (Monroe and Wicander 1997). Many Precambrian rocks are heavily metamorphosed, obscuring their origins, while others have either been destroyed by erosion, or remain deeply buried beneath Phanerozoic strata (Monroe and Wicander 1997, Gore 2006).

It is thought that the Earth itself coalesced from material in orbit around the sun roughly 4500 mya and may have been struck by a Mars-sized planetesimal shortly after it formed, splitting off material that came together to form the Moon. A stable crust was apparently in place by 4400 mya, since zircon crystals from Western Australia have been dated at 4404 mya.

The term "Precambrian" is somewhat dated, but is still in common use among geologists and paleontologists. It was briefly also called the Cryptozoic eon. It seems likely that "Precambrian" will eventually be replaced by the preferred terms Proterozoic, Archaean, and Hadean, and become a deprecated term.

Life before the Cambrian

It is not known when life originated, but carbon in rocks dated at 3800 mya from islands off western Greenland may be of organic origin. Well-preserved bacteria older than 3460 million years have been found in Western Australia. Probable fossils 100 million years older have been found in the same area. There is a fairly solid record of bacterial life throughout the remainder of the Precambrian.

Excepting a few contested reports of much older forms from Texas and India, the first complex multicellular life forms seem to have appeared roughly 600 mya. A quite diverse collection of soft-bodied forms is known from a variety of locations worldwide between 600 mya and 542 mya (the beginning of the Cambrian period). These are referred to as Ediacaran or Vendian biota. Hard-shelled creatures appeared toward the end of that time span.

A very diverse collection of forms appeared around 544 mya, starting in the late Precambrian with a poorly understood "small shelly fauna" and ending in the very early Cambrian with a very diverse, and quite modern "Burgess shale fauna," giving evidence of a rapid radiation of forms called the Cambrian explosion of life. Mayr (2001) concludes that the apparent explosion of new phyla in the early Cambrian was possibly due to the skeletonization of a variety of soft-bodied organisms that already existed in the Precambrian.

Planetary environment and the oxygen catastrophe

A map showing Rodinia, one of the oldest known supercontinents. Geologic evidence suggests that Rodinia formed about 1000 mya during the Mesoproterozoic era and broke apart during the Neoproterozoic era about 600 mya.

Continental land masses protruding above the surface of the waters covering Earth have assembled, broken apart, and re-assembled several times during the eons of geologic time, but details of plate motions in the Precambrian are only hazily known. It is generally believed that most of Earth's landmasses collected into a single supercontinent, Rodinia, around 1000 mya, and then broke apart around 600 mya. A number of glacial periods have been identified going as far back as the Huronian epoch, roughly 2200 mya. The best studied of the most ancient glaciations is the Sturtian-Varangian glaciation, around 600 mya, which may have brought glacial conditions all the way to the equator, resulting in a "Snowball Earth."

The atmosphere of the early Earth is poorly known, but it is thought to have been high in reducing gases, containing very little free oxygen. The young planet likely had a reddish tint, and its seas were thought to be olive green. Many materials with insoluble oxides appear to have been present in the oceans for hundreds of millions of years after the Earth's formation.

When bacteria developed the biochemical machinery for performing photosynthesis, they began to produce oxygen in large quantities, causing an ecological crisis sometimes called the Oxygen Catastrophe. In an early phase of the high volume production of oxygen, the oxygen was soon tied up in chemical reactions, primarily with iron, until the supply of oxidizable surfaces ran out. After that, the modern high-oxygen atmosphere developed. Older rocks contain massive banded iron formations that were apparently laid down as iron and oxygen first combined.

Subdivisions of the Precambrian

Diverse terminologies and frameworks for characterizing the early years of the Earth's existence have been developed in the past century. With improvements in and greater use of radiometric dating methods, however, scientists are assigning plausible real dates to specific formations and features, and the field is becoming more settled.

  • Proterozoic. In modern use, the Proterozoic eon is most often the period extending back from the beginning of the earliest Cambrian boundary to 2500 mya. The earliest Cambrian boundary has been placed at various times by various authors, but that boundary has now become settled at 542 mya. As originally used, the term Proterozoic was a synonym for Precambrian, and hence included everything prior to the Cambrian boundary.
    • Neoproterozoic. The Neoproterozoic era is considered to be the earliest subdivision of the Proterozoic, extending back from the earliest Cambrian boundary to as far as 900 mya, although modern use tends to represent a shorter interval from 542-600 mya. The Neoproterozoic corresponds to "Precambrian Z" rocks of older North American geology.
      • Ediacaran (part of the Neoproterozoic era of the Proterozoic eon). In March 2004, the International Union of Geological Sciences officially defined the term Ediacaran period as beginning at the time of deposition of a particular stratigraphic boundary, about 620 mya and ending at the beginning of the Cambrian, 542 mya. In the Ediacaran period, the Ediacaran fauna appeared. The Ediacaran period is longer than the time period since the disappearance of the dinosaurs some 65 mya; the Ediacaran is a time period sufficient for significant change and development of diverse body types as are seen in the Cambrian explosion.
      • Cryogenian. This is a proposed subdivision of the Neoproterozoic era.
      • Tonian. The Tonian is another proposed subdivision of the Neoproterozoic era.
    • Mesoproterozoic. The Mesoproterozoic era is the middle division of the Proterozoic eon, and extends from roughly 900 mya to 1600 mya. This time period corresponds to "Precambrian Y" rocks of older North American geology.
    • Paleoproterozoic. The Paleoproterozic era is the oldest subdivision of the Proterozoic eon, extending roughly from 1600-2500 mya. It corresponds to "Precambrian X" rocks of older North American geology.
  • Archaean. The Archaen eon extends roughly from 2500-3800 mya.
  • Hadean. The Hadean eon is the division corresponding to the time prior to 3800 mya. This term was intended originally to cover the time before any preserved rocks were deposited, although a very few rock beds seem to be dated slightly earlier than 3800 mya. Some zircon crystals from about 4400 mya demonstrate the existence of crust in the Hadean eon. Other records from Hadean time come from the moon and meteorites.

It has been proposed that the Precambrian should be divided into eons and eras that reflect stages of planetary evolution, rather than the current scheme based upon numerical ages. Such a system could rely on events in the stratigraphic record and be demarcated by Global Boundary Stratotype Sections and Points (GSSPs) (internationally agreed upon stratigraphic sections, which serve as the reference section for a particular boundary on the geologic time scale). The Precambrian could be divided into five "natural" eons, characterized as follows (Bleeker 2004):

  1. Accretion and differentiation: A period of planetary formation until the giant Moon-forming impact event.
  2. Hadean: The Late Heavy Bombardment period.
  3. Archean: A period defined by the first crustal formations (the Isua greenstone belt) until the deposition of banded iron formations due to increasing atmospheric oxygen content.
  4. Transition: A period of continued iron banded formation until the first continental red beds.
  5. Proterozoic: A period of modern plate tectonics until the first animals.

References


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